HMS Lutine 1799


If you asked anyone to name a famous naval ship – first on the list would be the Victory and probably the second would be the Lutine.

It is not widely known that, arguably, one of the most famous shipwrecks in the world happened to a ship that sailed on its last fateful journey from Great Yarmouth. That is HMS Lutine.

She was built and launched by the French. The ship passed to British control and was taken into service asHMSLutine and was rebuilt as a fifth-rate frigate. She sank among the West Frisian Islands during a storm in 1799. 

Before the start of the Napoleonic War, communication from London to France was via Dover and the short sea route to Calais. The Post Office packet boats carried the mail not only for France, but also for Germany, Austria and Italy on this route. During the Napoleonic War it was not possible to use the Dover and Calais route because of marauding enemy ships and privateers. Therefore, the Dover packet boats were transferred to the Harwich Packet Station, whose 60-ton vessels carried the mail to the Dutch ports. Even so the crossing of the North Sea was a hazardous business. Post Office packets were official vessels and armed with 4 four-pounder guns. They relied on speed rather than their armament. Numerous accounts of the capture of the packet boats have been recorded. Because of further packet boat losses, in 1785, the Post Office was forced to transfer the Packet Station from Harwich to Great Yarmouth.

With intermittent war raging across much of Western Europe near the end of the 18th century, by about 1795, Hamburg had replaced Amsterdam as an important hub for the commodities trade. The sudden shift of activity to Hamburg was accompanied by speculation, a rise in prices, and an expansion of credit. From 1795 to 1799, Hamburg boomed. However, the summer of 1798 was dry and the autumn wheat harvest was poor. A harsh winter of 1798-99 iced over the harbour, immobilizing ships, and hampering the transfer of goods from ship to shore. As speculation further drove up prices, consumption decreased, and by spring, supply greatly outstripped demand and prices fell. Bills of exchange, which had previously expanded, now contracted, sales fell, and prices plummeted. By August 1799, the crisis had begun in earnest with Hamburg in the grips of a violent commercial downturn. As the years went by very large sums of money owed to continental merchants had built up in the City of London and it became imperative to ship the gold somehow and with the maximum amount of security. Also money was needed to be sent to the army fighting in continental Europe. Since the Post Office packets were inadequate for the purpose, the merchants sought help from the Admiralty, who agreed that a naval ship should attempt the passage. HMS Lutine captained by 32-year-old Lancelot Skynner R.N. was chosen.

During September 1799, convoys of wagons, with armed escorts, began to carry the gold, silver, as well as thousands of Spanish coins, in boxes to Great Yarmouth. A few days before departure, bullion to the value then of over £1,175.000 (figures vary, but it was a lot of money) was put on board the Lutine, which was anchored in the Roads. Alongside the crew there were about 30 representatives of the London Banks, travelling as passengers.

On 8th October 1799, a ball was held on board the Lutine with local dignitaries attending. The order to sail came during the ball and the guests were hurried ashore. She set sail for Cuxhaven (the port for Hamburg) from Yarmouth Roads in the early morning on 9th October 1799 with a fortune on board.

In the evening of 9th October 1799, during a heavy north-westerly gale, the ship having made unexpected leeway, was drawn by the tide flowing into the Waddenzee, onto a sandbank in Vlie (Fly) off the island of Terschelling in the West Frisian Islands. There, she became a total loss. All but one of her approximately 250 passengers and crew perished in the breaking seas. The gold was mainly insured by Lloyd’s of London, who paid the claim in full. In 1838, the complete archive of Lloyds was destroyed by fire, so it is not possible to know the exact value of the bullion on board HMS Lutine. An uncorroborated newspaper report in 1869 referred to the Dutch crown jewels belonging to the Prince of Orange, which had been recently reset by those well-known London jewellers Rundell and Bridge, were on board. This was unlikely.

Over the years, many attempts have been made to salvage the bullion, but shifting sandbanks have disrupted salvage attempts and the majority of the cargo has never been recovered. The gold was apparently stored in flimsy casks bound with weak iron hoops and the silver in casks with wooden hoops. Within a year of the wreck, these casks had largely disintegrated, and the sea had started to scatter the wreck with sand covering it. Salvage attempts ceased by 1804. Over the years several other attempts were made, but very little bullion has been recovered. In 1886, a cannon was salvaged and presented by Lloyd’s to Queen Victoria. It is now on display at Windsor Castle. Another cannon is on display at the Guildhall in London. More are on display in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, and at least four are in Terschelling.

The ship's bell, engraved ST. JEAN – 1779, (St. John the Baptist under whose protection the Lutine was launched) was recovered on 17th July 1858. The bell was found entangled in the chains originally running from the ship’s wheel to the rudder. It was re-hung from the rostrum of the Underwriting Room at Lloyd's. It weighs 48 kilograms (106 lb) and is 46 centimetres (18 in) in diameter. At Lloyd’s the bell was traditionally struck when news of an overdue ship arrived; once for the loss of a ship and twice for her return. 

The Lutine Bell in the Underwriting Room at Lloyd's of London, 2011.